WHEN the caravan site at Burtree Gate went up, neighbour Dave Kirby told The Northern Echo: "A tank suddenly exploded and there was a huge bang. It was just like an H-bomb with a huge mushroom cloud in the sky."

It happened on June 26, 1993, and the fire was what is known in the fire-fighting trade as “a bleve” – a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion.

Burtree Gate is on the A68 beside Junction 58 of the A1(M). It was a tollgate on the Darlington to West Auckland road which was turnpiked in 1751 – a group of businessmen were allowed by the government to spend private money repairing the road and in return could collect tolls from road-users.

A few hundred yards south of Burtree Gate was one of the mileposts – Darlington 9 West Auckland 3 – which stretched the length of the 19 mile road.

The tollgate seems to have been removed in 1873, as local councils were given responsibility for the upkeep of roads, and today there are no signs of the tollkeeper’s cottage that was on the south side of the A68 next to the gate.

In fact little seems to have happened on this country junction until 1948 when Burtree Gate caravans was established there – “the gateway to contentment”, was one of its advertising slogans.

In 1969, it celebrated its 21st anniversary by giving away a £235 caravan to its 7,500th customer – Miss ITV handed over the keys, reported The Northern Echo which also reported Miss ITV’s vital statistics.

And then in 1993, Burtree Gate went boom.

Not only were there 300 caravans on site, but there were gas bottles and a 1.5 tonne liquid petroleum tank and a Burmah petrol station.

The first that the fire brigade knew of the problem was at about 12.30pm when it received an “incomplete call” from the caravan company’s receptionist. The call was incomplete because the flames were such that the receptionist had had to abandon her landline before she could explain the emergency of the situation.

As was procedure for incomplete calls, the brigade sent one engine from Darlington.

“On arrival, it did not take long for my colleague to request a further three appliances and I responded in charge of Darlington’s other pumping appliance,” says Brett Clayton.

“I always remember contacting control as we left St Cuthbert’s Way asking to confirm what was on fire, and I heard the driver of the first appliance sending a slightly distorted message to say ‘all the flipping lot’ – or words to that effect!”

It was a windy afternoon, fortunately blowing the flames away from the Burmah petrol station – although there were many other flammable substances on site.

“Shortly after I arrived, a jet of flame broke through the corner of the fully-involved caravan showroom straight onto the LPG tank,” says Brett. “We immediately got a cooling jet onto the tank but it had little effect, and very soon the relief valve blew off.

“I had no other choice but to evacuate all personnel and the two appliances from the rear of the premises, and they got out just in time as the tank exploded in the mushroom cloud fireball known as the ‘bleve’.”

Brett then requested another seven appliances, making 15 and the turntable ladder at the scene, but their efforts were hampered by a lack of a hydrant. They drained a fishpond in the neighbouring Burtree Inn before discovering that the nearest hydrants were more than a mile away at Faverdale. Engines worked in a shuttle filling up with water and dashing up to the blaze.

It took four hours to bring the fire under control, with the firefighters being praised for their bravery and for pushing caravans to safety.

As it was, 16 caravans were completely devoured, six more were damaged beyond salvage, and the showroom and workshop completely destroyed.

“Looking back, it was the most rapidly spreading fire I ever dealt with, and the most dangerous,” says Brett.

“Luckily, no one was injured, but later in the day crews had to act to replace water in the Burtree Inn fish pond to save the fish.”

Not all of the fish pulled through, though. Inn landlady Maria Vasiliou told the Echo at the time that some exotic fish had been fried.

She said: "A customer going away on holiday put 13 fish in the pond last weekend and said: ‘I know they will get looked after here'. Goodness knows what he will say when he comes back."

THE Burtree Bleve was referred to in Memories 369, the “burning issue”, which commemorated the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Durham and Darlington brigade.

In that history, the Burtree Bleve is a landmark not simply because it was such a memorable fire but because it was the first major incident attended by the brigade’s first female firefighter.

It was her baptism of fire.

There do appear to have been women firefighters during the Second World War, when most towns had their own, independent fire brigades, but by the time the county-wide brigade came in to being on April 1, 1948, it was men only on the frontline.

So Durham’s first female was 18-year-old Susan Garnett, of Sedgefield, who joined up as a retained firefighter in June 1992. She also worked part-time as a fashion assistant at Binns in Darlington.

Nicknamed “Alf” because of her surname, she was still the only female among the 695 Durham firemen when she was summoned to Burtree Gate a year after joining up.